At a May 25 hearing, senior executives of the Smithsonian Institution testified before Congress on the details of the contract with Showtime Networks that forms a Smithsonian on Demand, a public-private partnership that would create television programming, using the vast holdings in the Smithsonian, to be aired on the Showtime cable network.

There were two incredible disclosures about the deal. One was the length of the contract: It was revealed in the 170-page document that it is for 30 years. Second, the Smithsonian would own a 10 percent stake in the new venture. Commenting on that, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Lawrence M. Small said, "Since the Smithsonian is not investing any money, the percentage is unusually good."

In the real estate and the restaurant businesses, it's all about location. I'm a documentary filmmaker, and in my business, it's all about access -- to the person, place or thing about which the story is being made. So while Mr. Small may not see the holdings and curatorial staff of the Smithsonian as having the cash equivalent of the equipment and personnel that Showtime will contribute, he has, in fact, grossly underestimated the value of what he has turned over to this for-profit cable company.

In documentary terms, the secretary gave away the most important asset in the deal: access. Without this exclusive access, Showtime would be in the same boat as all the other cable channels and broadcasters vying for use of the vast Smithsonian holdings. In comparative terms, Showtime has made a great deal with very little


Will Mr. Small's devalued assessment of the nation's attic hold until 2036?

I hope that Congress will educate the Smithsonian's chief officer about the value of our nation's historical treasures and shelve this contract.



The Documentary Center